Coverflips: The Not-So-Subtle Message of YA Cover Art
[Editor's note: Maureen has posted a follow-up post.]
It started with a tweet:
I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, “Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy”
— maureenjohnson (@maureenjohnson) May 6, 2013
That was May 6th. By May 7th, author Maureen Johnson’s tweet had turned into a full-blown challenge, with coverage all over the Internet. (You can follow the conversation and the challenge Johnson proposed on a variety of sites, from Tumblr to Twitter, with the hashtag #coverflip.)
Basically, Johnson, author of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Devilish, The Name of the Star, and many other YA novels, contends that female authors are very often given cover art that tells readers the content is light, fluffy, easy, and “girly.” In short,
If you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simply more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.
After her initial tweet, Johnson asked readers to redesign book covers, changing the gender of the author and creating new artwork to reflect the genderswap. She used her own book, The Keys to the Golden Firebird, to illustrate her point. The book is “about three sisters who are dealing with the sudden death of their father,” she writes. “May, the middle sister, is trying to hold her family together and learn how to drive. This is the cover.”
There are additional examples on her personal Tumblr, and many, many more on the dedicated Coverflip Tumblr. The Huffington Post featured a slideshow of coverflips created by readers, selected by Johnson from the hundreds that were submitted in under 24 hours. Follow up articles appeared in the Guardian, among other news outlets, and a huge array of bloggers and authors chimed in, including Tamora Pierce, Amanda Hocking and Trish Doller.
The Hub has featured numerous posts on many aspects of cover art and design, including trends, copycat covers, racism in YA covers, great covers, and misleading covers, and many of those posts and their comments touch on the idea of “girl books” vs “boy books” and the effect perception has on which books readers pick up and how they judge the content. Judging by the number of female YA authors who retweeted, commented on, blogged about, or contributed coverflipped submissions, Johnson has hit a nerve. Laini Taylor, Sarah Dessen, Ellen Kushner, Cassandra Clare, Shannon Hale, Laurie Halse Anderson, Rainbow Rowell, Kiersten White … the list is extensive and the responses passionate.
I certainly have my own bias about cover art, as well as my own preconceptions and assumptions, so I decided to look through covers for past Printz Award winner and honor books with Johnson’s complaint in mind. There are definitely covers I like more than others, for a variety of reasons, and covers that I think work (or not). Connecting the dots between cover art, author gender, and the story itself was certainly a frustrating and enlightening exercise (though I confess many covers leave me scratching my head). For example, look at the following covers:
What do you think the cover art says about the content? Does it accurately reflect the story inside?
How about these:
As Johnson says in “The Gender Coverup,”
We’re told not to judge books by them, but… EVERYBODY DOES. That is what they are for. They are the packages that get your attention, that give you messages about what to expect.
Which raises the question: do female authors get covers that signal “light and fluffy” while their male counterparts get “literary and worthwhile?” If a cover comes across as “girly” does that signal inferior? How does cover art influence your choice of what to read or your perception of the quality or content of a particular book? Perhaps more importantly, what can we as readers do to encourage and support all kinds of stories, for all kinds of readers, with cover art that truly reflects the contents of the book, not the gender of the author?
Did you contribute to the Coverflip project? If so, or if you’d like to do so now, link to your coverflipped contribution in the comments.
– Julie Bartel, currently reading Shadow on the Sun by David Macniss Gill and Messenger of Truth (Maisie Dobbs #4) by Jacqueline Winspear